There’s a reason why people joke there’s an ancient Indian burial ground underneath Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky football and its fans have been trapped in a cruel cycle of inflated hopes and dashed dreams ever since Bear Bryant took off for greener pastures in 1954. In the 62 years since Bear left, the program has had only three seasons in which it won nine or more games. In the past 30 years, UK has only been to eight bowl games, the second worst mark in the SEC behind Vanderbilt. It’s a tale as old as time: just when you think the Cats are ready to pull themselves out of the SEC cellar, some cruel twist of fate comes along to stomp on their fingers.
The past two seasons have been the perfect case study. Not only did Kentucky come up just short of bowl eligibility with losses to arch rival Louisville each go around, there have been just enough moments of ecstasy to make the impending moments of agony that much more painful. Be honest: when Mark Stoops said, “We’re just getting started, bro,” after upsetting Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in 2014, you believed him…only to have your hopes crushed when Kentucky went 1-6 the rest of the season. But hey, these are the pains of rebuilding in the SEC, right? After another win over South Carolina in 2015 – on the road, to boot! – it seemed like the Cats were on the right path once again, only to be derailed by perennial soul-crusher Florida. Two wins later, things were looking up as Stoops and company had every opportunity to beat Auburn on a primetime Thursday night stage, but choked. From there, a series of befuddling errors marred the season, most notably four squandered goal-line opportunities vs. Vanderbilt and a 21-point lead over Louisville blown to pieces by poor execution. After watching the Cards score 31 unanswered points in Commonwealth Stadium to end UK’s season for the second year in a row, it’s been pretty hard to get up off the mat, even for a fanbase as weathered as ours.
That’s why I’m declaring this the “Show Me” season for Kentucky football, and not just because they likely have to beat Missouri to make a bowl. Outside of the perpetually positive hardcore UK Football fans, the rest of fanbase seems to be firmly in “wait and see” mode. Season ticket sales are way down from previous years, and, if you judge by the hits on football articles on KSR, the only thing worse than negativity may be indifference. Critics like to accuse KSR of “sunshine-pumping” the program, but we’re coming upon the time of year in which I inevitably follow heart over head due to excitement and I’m going into Saturday’s Women’s Clinic guarded. Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing more than for Mark Stoops to succeed at Kentucky, and he finally has all of the building blocks in place: renovated stadium, state-of-the-art practice facility, etc. But, without wins, it’s all for naught, and I’ve read the “we’ve turned the corner” script too many times before.
With that being said, here’s what I’ll be looking for on Saturday at the Women’s Clinic:
Does Drew Barker resemble a leader?
I’ll admit it: I bought in to the Drew Barker hype, hook, line, and sinker. After months of talking to Drew over the phone for his diary on the site, I was blown away by his maturity, focus, and vision for the UK Football program. Well, after a tumultuous freshman year, it looked like we were all wrong about the kid who was heralded to be the future of the program, but hey, kids make mistakes, and Drew spent plenty of time in Stoops’ doghouse. Last year, Drew appeared ready to put the past behind him and won the starting job from Patrick Towles the final two games of the season; however, he never really resembled a leader. Even with the reins of the offense in hand, Drew didn’t seem sure of himself, and was actually benched for Towles towards the end of the Louisville game.
With Towles now out of the picture, it will be interesting to see whether Barker fully embraces the role of leader, and, more importantly, if his teammates respond to him. Kentucky cannot afford another locker room divide, so, if Barker is there, I’ll be watching his interactions with fans and teammates, and if he’s not, I’ll be listening to hear what the coaches say about him. It’s a far cry from seeing him lead the team on the field, but I think you can tell a lot about a person’s character by their demeanor in these settings.
Does the Training Facility really have that “WOW” factor?
As in, ‘I’m an 18-year-old five-star recruit with offers from schools way more prestigious than Kentucky, but “WOW,” that training facility will cause me to give this place a second look.’
Kentucky doesn’t have the tradition or record of other programs, so to snare some big-time stars, things like a renovated stadium, a state-of-the-art practice facility, and, yes, uniforms matter. Those who attend the women’s clinic will get the chance to tour the facility and see the new uniforms, so I’m hoping to be wowed.
The in-state trio (Landon Young, Kash Daniel, Drake Jackson)
We’ve gotten our hopes up for home state heroes before, and at the risk of doing it again, it seems like the trio of Landon Young, Kash Daniel, and Drake Jackson is just…different. The three spearheaded the 2016 recruiting class, and both Kash and Drake enrolled early to get a leg up on preparing for their freshman seasons. While Drake is likely to redshirt and we’ve heard it’s taken Kash some time to adjust to the college game, Landon might start immediately. As with Drew, I’ll be watching to see how they interact with others. Judging by Twitter, we know they’re not shrinking violets. (I just hope Landon doesn’t feel the need to teach us about frog gigging ðŸ˜)
Who’s the leader on Defense?
Judging by SEC Media Days, it’s Courtney Love, one of the three players Stoops chose to represent the program. Since the days of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, I think you can argue there’s been a lack of leadership on defense, and everyone seems to be pointing at Love, a transfer, to fill the void. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Love yet, so I hope to hear from him at the clinic.
Any focus on or mention of Special Teams
It’s no secret that UK’s special teams have been a bit of a mess the past few years. In fact, you could argue they were the most frustrating unit on the field last season, which is saying something considering the others. After a million fans lobbied for the job on Twitter, Stoops finally caved in and hired a special teams coordinator over the offseason, former Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House, who will also oversee inside linebackers. Can House restore some order to a troubled unit? I’ll be listening.
What will JoJo Kemp do this year?
Heading in to his freshman year, JoJo Kemp proved to the ladies at the 2013 Women’s Clinic that he’s game for anything, pulling up his shirt during a uniform presentation to show off his abs. Now a senior, JoJo has matured, but he’s still a wildcard. Clearly the vocal leader of the team, JoJo charmed reporters at SEC Media Days and, if he’s there, I’m sure he’ll do the same on Saturday.
Want to join me at the Clinic? There are still spots available.